These are the roles to make someone else die for. Ever since the days of Murder, Inc in the 1940s and ‘50s, and the revelations about government involvement in assassination attempts in the ‘60s and ‘70s, movie goers have seen professional killers portrayed on the big screen. Rather than being a crime of passion or hatred, these killers are like small-business people, motivated by profit, even if some of them are government contractors. I’ve left off some good performances, like Avner (Eric Bana) in Munich, who is more of a soldier in small battles, and Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) in The Manchurian Candidate, since it wasn’t his conscious choice to kill. While in a couple of the films the character “changes their ways,” they were first people who killed because they chose to do it.
10) Leon in Leon: The Professional (1994)
French director Luc Besson, who most recently did Lucy, has two characters he created on this list. The first is Leon, played by Jean Reno. Leon is a “cleaner” who works for a crime boss in NYC. He’s pretty much illiterate and his only real relationship is with a house plant. That changes when a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman) and his team wreak havoc on a family in Leon’s apartment building. The only survivor is 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman in her movie debut) who seeks shelter with Leon. The two work out a complex relationship – part parent-child, part mentor-student. In the end, when the agents seek to eliminate the only witness to their crime, Leon must use his skills to protect Mathilda.
9) Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
John Cusack co-produced and collaborated on the screenplay for this movie, as well as playing Martin Blank in this comedy about a hit man who winds up at his 10 year high school reunion. The movie features Minnie Driver as Martin’s droll high school sweetheart, John’s sister Joan as his secretary, and Dan Ackroyd as a competing assassin. It’s not exactly black comedy, but it’s definitely dark gray, and Cusack’s a perfect fit for the character.
8) Rowley in Foreign Correspondent (1940)
In this Alfred Hitchcock thriller, there are two instances of casting against type. George Saunders, usually cast as a rogue, plays good guy ffolliot who helps Joel McCrea unearth a Nazi plot right before the outbreak of WWII. The other casting is Edmund Gwen, known mostly these days as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, as the hired killer Rowley. While the movies had shown political assassins and gangster killers plenty of times, this is one of the first hired hit men to be featured in a film.
7) Nikita in Nikita (a.k.a. La Femme Nikita) (1990)
Besson’s second character on this list is from his breakout movie. Anne Parillard plays a nihilistic teen who is captured after a drug-fueled robbery goes wrong. Rather than being sent to prison, Nikita is pulled out by a secret government agency called “The Centre” and trained as an assassin. After her training and her initial hit, she’s allowed to live on her own, but she finds the worlds she’s straddling keep coming into conflict. This movie was remade in the US as Point of No Return, with Bridget Fonda as Nikita, though they make her more of a victim of circumstance. It also spawned two TV series, with Peta Wilson then Maggie Q in the title role.
6) G. Joubert in Three Days of the Condor (1975)
This Sydney Pollack thriller was based on the book “Six Days of the Condor” by James Grady. They picked up the pace for the movie. The main focus is on intelligence operative Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) who tries to figure out why everyone was murdered at the think-tank where he worked. Joe had snuck out the back way because of rain and wasn’t seen by the team of assassins before they struck. The leader of the team is G. Joubert, played with cool aplomb by Max von Sydow. He takes a contract and completes it, but it isn’t personal for him, and if a contract supersedes his original one, that’s fine with him.
5) Vincent in Collateral (2004)
Michael Mann’s movie is a pas de deux between taxi cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise), a hit man hired by South American drug lords to make a government case go away by wiping out the government’s witnesses, informants, and the prosecutor. The movie takes place in classic tragedy style over the course of one long night as Vincent makes his rounds across Los Angeles. In between the hits he spouts his philosophy of life to Max, who must try to find some way to stop Vincent if he is to survive. It’s one of Cruise’s better performances, playing against type.
4) The Bride in Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2 (2003-4)
This role began with Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman brainstorming together during down time while making Pulp Fiction and grew into a four-hour .44 magnum opus with Thurman, whose character is only identified as The Bride until midway through the second movie, taking revenge on the team of assassins she once belonged to after they wipe out the participants at her wedding, put her into a coma, and steal her child. (She does have some motivation.) You could give honorable mentions in this category to Vivica A.Fox, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, and David Carradine, each of them assassins in their own right, but to the winner goes the spoils.
3) The Jackal in The Day of The Jackal (1973)
This faithful adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s thriller stars Edward Fox as an English assassin known only as the Jackal. He’s hired by a group of former French military officers to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. The movie begins with a recreation of an actual attempt on de Gaulle’s life in 1962. When it fails, the group behind it decides to bring in a professional. Fox is excellent as the Jackal, operating with ice water in his veins as he pursues his target. Do not confuse this excellent movie with the awful Bruce Willis/Richard Gere 1997 movie The Jackal that purports to be based on the book.
2) Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007)
Javier Bardem deservedly won an Oscar for his performance as Chigurh, a merciless killer – unless you call a coin flip correctly. With his page-boy haircut and deadly shark eyes, he’s riveting to watch. Chigurh’s weapon of choice is a captive bolt pistol, normally used to kill cows in slaughter houses to eliminate the risk of flying bullets. Bardem’s Oscar win was the first by a Spanish actor over the Academy’s 80 year history at that time.
1) Jason Bourne in The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)
What happens when a contract killer no longer remembers who he is or what he’s done, but retains his skills? The series is based on Robert Ludlum’s bestseller from the 1970s, but in updating the story for the new millennium the screenwriters masterfully reworked the plot. The Bourne Identity, along with Supremacy and Ultimatum, completely changed the thriller genre. Matt Damon is brilliant in the role, convincingly handling the physical action as well as making the audience emotionally involved with the character and his struggles.
If you have other professional killer roles that you’ve think are deserving, please add a comment. I’d enjoy the input.